Okay so you know you want to write a book, but how do you get started? Well, it’s really up to personal choice as to whether you just get stuck in and hope for the best or get down to planning before you begin writing.
There are authors who are very successful by just writing and hoping for the best, but you’ll find that most have some sort of planning process that helps them organise their thoughts. I find that by planning out each chapter or each book from beginning to end it gives me something to focus on. If I don’t plan, I don’t focus and I don’t write.
My advice to you is to do two things:
Firstly, carry a notebook with you at all times so that when inspiration strikes you can jot down your ideas for stories and plots. Keep it at your bedside table so that any great Eureka moments you have as you drift off to sleep are not lost in the hours between sleep and waking the next morning. Inspiration strikes, write it down or lose it.
Secondly, don’t just sit there at your computer or laptop praying for divine inspiration. Get started. Take a mental run at it (what I call a ‘mental runny’) which means you just start writing something, anything. Plan your book. You can use specialist software like Scrivener to help you plan your plots and sub-plots, but I’ve successfully written five books using nothing more than an A4 spiral-bound notebook and a pen to plan and get down the bones of the story. I would take them everywhere I went and use pockets of free time during the day to scribble down ideas or the next bit of plots.
Write up the rough story from beginning to end for all children’s books, including books for babies. This not only provides you with a general idea of where the story is going, but will help you focus on getting there. Don’t worry if the story changes as you write it – your ending might not be exactly the one you had in mind at first, but will have evolved into something different. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have an idea of where it’s going and you work towards that.
Make sure you also plan out the sub-plots and how they link in with overall story. Sub-plots are often about things that happen to your main character, something that shapes them or causes them to act in the way that they do.
I also find it useful to write up character and place studies. This might sound like a lot of work at first, but believe me it’s useful to have a full description of what your character is wearing or what they look like jotted down in a notebook or computer programme. There is nothing worse writing something about, for instance, the exact blue of a character’s eyes only to find out you’ve got them wrong. If you don’t write up these studies you may waste precious time trawling through your draft book trying to find the part that talks about those eyes and, oh look, they are yellow, not blue! Trust me I’ve only come to this realisation late in my career having wasted hours trawling through thousands of words to check facts.
Other tools I’ve found useful when planning books is using mind mapping and spider diagrams. I first came across mind mapping a few years ago at a course I was doing at work (yes, I have a job). I had never heard of it before, but is it is a useful way of getting down your thoughts and ideas and, more importantly, how these link together.
Below you’ll find an example of a mind map I’ve put together:
Spider diagrams are excellent tools for getting ideas down in a simple and easy manner. You just write down your main goal in the centre and then jot down your ideas for that with ‘legs’ attaching them to the centre. These are sometimes also called hub and spokes.
Here’s a very simple spider diagram:
I love flow charts and regularly use them to sort out how a scene might go and why. I think there’s something in drawing up those lovely arrows that makes me feel I’m moving forward with the story.
Here’s an example of a flow chart:
For all three you can use a simple pen and bit of paper or jazz it up with coloured pens/pencils. Experiment: there is no right or wrong for any of them. They are your diagrams; you make them look the way you want them to. Be as creative as you like.
For the more techie of you, there is a variety of software out there that will create your flowchart, mind map or spider diagram. Just Google it. There’s also tonnes of information about mind mapping, spider diagrams and flowcharts online too.
Other ways of planning include a blackboard and chalk, Post-Its, drawing your characters and places, and using a mood board (where you stick the things that are inspiring your story on a board, including photos, words etc).
Another good tip is to write up a work-plan with deadlines for your book. A baby book, for instance, will have fewer deadlines than a novel, but it’s still good to write up your work-plan for it.
When writing a novel, I aim to write at least a chapter of around 3,000-5,000 words a week. There are usually 20 to 25 chapters in my book, which means I have to write about 60,000 to 75,000 words. At a chapter a week, that means it will take me between 20 and 25 weeks (five to six months) to do the first draft. You have to find your own preference for how much you want to write on any given day. Some writers only manage 500 words a day, for others it’s thousands. Some days you will write more than on others.
I also remember to add in the elements I learned when training to be a reporter with a local newspaper at the tender age of 18. It was the first thing I was told to remember when I was getting all the information for my news story and you’ve probably already heard it: who, what, why, where, when and how? This means: who is the story about, where did it happen, when did it happen, what happened, why did it happen and how did it happen? This is also good advice when writing a children’s book. Make sure all elements of ‘ who, what, why, where, when and how’ are in your story and you can’t go wrong. Write them up on a piece of paper and keep reminding yourself of them when you are writing and reading your story.
You can write up a story that starts off with a boy finding a lamp, rubbing the lamp and the genie appears and gives him everything he wants. It’s an okay story, but it’s a bit boring. A good story needs twists and turns, some problem somewhere that needs to be resolved before the main character can live a happy life. In Aladdin’s story (who), he comes up against the evil Jafar (who) whom he has to vanquish (what) before he can live a happy life (why) with the princess in their magical palace (where)…a much more interesting story.
Even for baby books you need an interesting story line. For instance, today (when) a baby chick (who) on a farm (where) loses his mother (the ‘what’ of the story – what happens) and he goes around the farmyard looking for her (how). He asks all the farm animals if they have seen her (who). They haven’t. He can’t find her, then she finds him and the book ends happily. Make sure your story has a happy ending. This is a children’s book after all!
So you have now finished your first draft – the basic story is written – now, it’s time to do the first edit.
The first edit always takes me the longest time…as edits go. Further edits don’t usually take as long. The first edit can take another two to three months because it’s here I’ll pick up any continuity errors, gaps in the plot and blocks of text that either need re-written or are just not working. It’s also a time to take out any unnecessary words and sharpen up your story.
Once that’s done, I’ll put the book away for a month or so. Yes, you read it correctly: I put the book away and don’t look at it for at least four weeks. This is so that I can go over it again with a fresh perspective. I find that if I keep going over the same bits of text I no longer see what’s not working or where the mistakes are. By ignoring it, I forget what I’ve written, I go back to it and see if the text flows properly, if the story makes sense and whether there are any bits that need amending.
Sounds exhausting? I won’t lie to you, it’s hard work and I’ve sometimes sickened myself on the book before the process is even finished. Not that I want to put you off…I’m just being realistic.
Anyway, back to the book. I’ll go over it again a couple more times before sending it off to an agent, publisher or editor (if I’ve already signed a contract with a publisher). There may be additional editing…in fact; there usually is always additional editing. That can be another couple of months of going back and forth.
Finally, the book is finished and I sigh with relief, looking forward to a writing-free period of time and the publishing date!
Ah the publishing date… that wonderful time when you first hold your book in your sweaty little hands, smell the newness of the pristine pages and secretly shout ‘yippee I’ve done it!’ to yourself. It’s what it’s all about. It’s the most amazing feeling in the world holding a book that’s all yours! I was speechless the first time I picked up a copy of DarkIsle (see my author website: danelsonauthor.com for more information) – something that’s unheard of in a chatterbox like me! It made the hard work all worth it.